PHOTO: FRA standout Lance Wilhoite fires a pass in a loss against BGA last season. / ANDY COLLIGNON
By RUSSELL VANNOZZI
Franklin Road Academy may have a small football roster, but that doesn’t mean it lacks star power.
Despite having just 35 players for the 2018 season, the Panthers are loaded with college talent. Wide receiver Lance Wilhoite has already committed to Oregon, and lineman Tymon Mitchell has offers from Power 5 programs like Georgia, Alabama and California. Versatile athlete Riley Speed has an offer from UT-Martin and could improve his stock with a strong senior campaign.
The Panthers finished 5-7 and fell to Lausanne in the second round of the TSSAA DII-AA playoffs last season. Quarterback Eric Stoxstill-Diggs (Cornell) and linebacker Watson Tansil (Columbia) have moved on to the Ivy League, but coach Bill Whittemore sees plenty of potential in this year’s team.
“We lost a few seniors last year, but the bulk of our team is back,” Whittemore said. “We have a lot of guys that saw the field last season. I like our team; I like our chemistry. It feels good.”
But to build on last year’s progress, the Panthers will have to break in a new quarterback and be in excellent physical condition to keep up with teams that have deeper rosters.
Casey, Wilhoite highlight FRA on offense
Junior Sean Casey will take over for Stoxstill-Diggs at quarterback. The 6-foot signal caller threw for 105 yards in limited action in 2017.
“Sean is going to be a good football player for us,” Whittemore said. “I’m interested to see how he responds under the lights. He spent a lot of time studying film and learning our playbook this offseason. He’s a vocal leader and a good athlete.”
Wilhoite, who caught 69 passes for 1,089 yards and 13 touchdowns last season, will be Casey’s top target.
“We knew he was going to be a player when he stepped on campus,” Whittemore said. “He continues to develop and get better every year, and a lot of people have noticed his talent.”
Speed and junior Kingston Gardner will also see time at receiver.
Stockill-Diggs and Tansil combined to rush for over 1,000 yards and 13 touchdowns last year, meaning the Panthers will have to look to other sources of production on the ground. Whittemore named Brogren Wilson and Jack Arsta as the top two running back candidates.
“Wilson will probably get the nod at RB,” Whittemore said. “He transferred from out of state last year and was hurt most of the season. Both of them are serviceable backs that we think we’ll get a lot of production from.”
The Panthers return all but one offensive lineman, including Mitchell, juniors Will Wheeler and Jeremy Washington and sophomore Hayes Dalton.
“We have four out of five offensive linemen returning, which reflects the defensive line as well,” Whittemore. “In our world, kids play both ways.”
FRA defense anchored by Mitchell
Leading a team in tackles is a difficult task for an interior lineman, but that’s exactly what Mitchell did last season for the Panthers. The 6-foot-3, 309-pounder made a total of 74 stops, including 11 tackles-for-loss and three sacks.
“His motor never stops,” Whittemore said of Mitchell. “He’ll give us everything that he has until he’s done. He’s going to chase down the ball no matter where it is.”
Mitchell shores up a defensive line that will include Washington, Wheeler, Dalton, and junior Kevin Donnell. Arsta, junior Jacob Jackson and sophomore Connor Moore will each play linebacker.
The defensive backfield will also be a strength for the Panthers. Wilhoite will man the strong safety spot, while Gardner will play free safety. Speed and sophomore Will Johnson are expected to start at cornerback.
Many players will see significant time on both sides of the ball, which can make late-game situations difficult for the Panthers. Grades 9-12 at FRA account for approximately 300 total students.
“That’s always been our struggle,” Whittemore said. “The size of our school means our kids are playing both ways. They never come off the field. When we’re facing teams that just go one way, it’s hard for us to sustain that effort throughout the entire game.”
Challenging schedule ahead
Whittemore made no bones about it: the Panthers have a tough slate of games this season. FRA’s first three matchups are on the road at Davidson Academy, South Gibson and Lipscomb Academy.
“We’ve got a tough schedule,” he said. “We’ve only got four region games, so we had to go out and find a bunch of games. There’s not really a game on our schedule that I would circle as a win going into [the season].”
The Panthers will host DCA on Sept. 8 for their home opener. Nearby Goodpasture (Sept. 28), Columbia Academy (Oct. 5) and Battle Ground Academy (Oct. 11) will also pay visits to South Nashville.
FRA closes the regular season at powerhouse Christ Presbyterian Academy on Oct. 26.
“We’ve got to come to play each week,” Whittemore said. “It’s important for us to start strong. The more confidence we can get early, the better of a run we’ll make late [in the season].”
PHOTO: FRA running back Brogen Wilson runs the ball in a game against Battle Ground Academy last season. / ANDY COLLIGNON